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NEWS & COMMENTARY 2008 SPEAKERS 2007 2006 2005

Thursday, January 18, 2007

EU politics: A new far-right bloc


With Romanian and Bulgarian accession to the EU on January 1st, six more far-right deputies now sit in the European parliament (EP). As a result, ultra-nationalists have been able to form a bloc, Identity, Transition, Sovereignty (ITS) that will receive funding, more speaking time and potentially even chairmanships of committees. However, the bloc's influence will be limited, as mainstream parties have pledged to ring-fence the new grouping, which accounts for only 2.5% of MEPs. The ITS may exhaust itself within the year, as a result of internal policy contradictions, personality differences, and possible electoral failure at home.

The European Parliament's first session in 2007 on January 16th included the two new EU member states, Romania and Bulgaria. The 35 Romanian and 18 Bulgarian MEPs include five from the extreme right Greater Romania Party and one from Bulgaria's Atak party, who have agreed to join the newly-formed far-right block, led by Bruno Gollnisch of France's National Front. Their arrival brings the motley group of extreme nationalists, racists and holocaust-deniers to 20, one more than required to qualify for financial support from the EP and claim the right to sit on parliamentary committees.

The far right has a long history of uncomfortable alliances and break-ups in the EP. Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the France's National Front, headed a group in 1984-89, which emerged into the Technical Group of the European Right and remained intact until 1994. Since then, there has not been a sufficient number of far-right MEPs to retain a group status. Although there are other right wing groupings in the EP, the most extreme elements have been unable until now to generate critical mass.

United in division

The Greater Romania Party and Atak will now join: seven members of France's National Front, including Mr Le Pen himself; three from Belgium's separatist Flemish nationalist party Vlaams Belang led by Frank Vanhecke; two Italians, one of whom is Alessandra Mussolini, granddaughter of Benito Mussolini; Andreas Mölzer, a member of Austria's Freedom Party; and a British MEP, who was recently kicked out of the UKIP for housing benefit fraud.

The ITS caucus says that it is united on principles of family and Christian values. To that one can add a deep distaste for the EU itself, and immigration from outside of Europe. Internal EU immigration, however, may create differences. There is some irony in the fact that most far-right parties adamantly opposed EU enlargement but have benefited in the EP from the arrival of Romania and Bulgaria. It is also not clear whether the ITS would support recent EU initiatives to curtail immigration from North Africa, thereby strengthening the EU itself.

ITS's unity is likely to be tenuous. Its members are extreme but in different ways, and towards different minority groups. Political pragmatism, rather than common feeling, has brought them together. EP rules favour trans-national over national groupings. Thus even ostensibly nationalistic MEPs from different countries can see the value in uniting, as it allows them to propose motions and amendments to legislation, and speak more fully in key debates, to say nothing of qualifying for some €1m (US$1.3m) in EP funding.

Bark or bite

In reality, their power to influence policy will remain limited. First, mainstream parties have pledged to isolate ITS in committees and debates. And second, the issues on which they would unite--minorities, immigration or security--are decided at the national level (far right MEPs may show little interest in engaging in uncontroversial and mundane policy issues in which ideology plays little part).

Where does this leave ITS? On the one hand, its future seems unstable. Its members are capricious, and by their very nationalist nature prone to internal disputes. The recent Bulgarian and Romanian additions were not elected but appointed by their respective governments in proportion to their domestic parliamentary seats. They will have to face elections to the EP later this year, in which they may fare badly. Extreme parties from Eastern Europe have short shelf-lives.

On the other hand, the EP elections can be a useful means of registering a protest vote--by voicing discontent without influence--which could benefit the extreme parties. The EP may also provide a useful campaigning platform for far right politics, some of which are doing well in their domestic parliaments. Mr Le Pen, for one, is currently riding high in opinion polls as he gears up for France's presidential election in May. The impact of the ITS may be felt most in their members' home countries, which has always been the aim of its members.
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